Th. Rothstein 1908

Max Beer and the Labour Opportunists

Source: Justice, 05 December 1908, p. 6
Transcribed: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The singular letter of comrade Beer in last week’s “Labour Leader” must have come as a surprise to many who have only known him by his philosophical contributions to our party press. Those, however, who have followed his literary activity as correspondent of the “Vorwaerts” will have been fully prepared for the personal eulogy of Keir Hardie and the appreciation of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald’s tactics contained in that letter, as these have been the constant theme of his letters from England ever since Mr. Shackleton got elected at Clitheroe in 1902.

I mention this date not without purpose. Comrade Beer, while in America, was a De Leonite—what we call here an “Impossibilist.” When he came over to this country his first note was, therefore, rank pessimism. He could find, outside the then rather limited body of the S.D.F., no Social-Democratic movement in England, and saw none even in the perspective. His articles in the German Press at that time were full of despondency, and the social and political future of England appeared to him as a replica of that of China, walled up against the influences of the outside world, and slowly, but inevitably, decaying into sheer nothingness. I well remember that phase in comrade Beer’s state of mind, because just previously to that, I myself, by an analysis of the economic and political evolution of England during the last twenty-five years, had come to a totally different conclusion, and prognosticated the bankruptcy of the Liberal Party, the rise of Imperialism coupled with Protection and Militarism, the attack on Trade Unionism, the rise and growth of the independent political movement of the British working class, and so forth. And when comrade Beer, on his arrival in this country, paid me the honour of calling upon me, we had a long argument on this question, he taking a most despondent, and I a most hopeful view of the future of the Socialist movement in this country, as I had just then expressed in the “Neue Zeit,” and previously to that in “Justice” and elsewhere.

The election of Mr. Shackleton—which, it will be remembered, was a walk-over—changed comrade Beer’s state of mind as if by magic. The event, I well remember, was described by him in the “Vorwaerts” as a “new era,” and ever since then he has been attached to the Labour Party, supporting it and the tactics of its leaders through thick and thin, criticising at the same time the S.D.P. as sectarian and doctrinaire. It may be noticed that at that time not only Shackleton and MacDonald and Henderson were styled by him “comrades,” but on some occasions even John Burns.

I mention these facts not at all with a view to exposing Beer’s inconsistencies, or his lack of capacity for political orientation, but merely to show that his Marxism, in spite of his adherence to it in the domain of philosophy, has always been of a rather peculiar type. First an Impossibilist, and then an admirer of the Hardie-MacDonald policy, these are not exactly good qualifications to the title of a Marxist.

But Marxist or no Marxist, what is there that he admires so much in the policy and work of these two men? It is that they have succeeded in divorcing Labour men from the bourgeois parties. The political independence of Labour, he tells us, is the essence of modern Socialism as taught by Marx, and by having brought it about these men have successfully discharged the foremost duty of Socialists in the class struggle.

Now, I do not wish at this juncture to enter into a controversy as to whether Keir Hardie and MacDonald have really deserved the honour which Beer bestows upon them. The question which is of interest to me at present is a different one. I want to know, first, whether political independence of Labour is really the essence of modern Socialism, and, second, what is the precise character of the political independence which the leaders of the I.L.P. have brought about?

It seems to me that to put the first question is to answer it. Political independence of Labour is no doubt an essential part of modern Socialism—that is, Socialism is unthinkable, and is, indeed, impossible, without the political independence of Labour. But the political independence of Labour can very well exist without Socialism, as has been demonstrated both in this country and in the colonies. If the political independence of Labour were the essence of modern Socialism then the Australian Labour Party, for instance, would be essentially a Socialist Party, which even Mr. MacDonald would not assert. The organisation of the work place for independent political action is, no doubt, a great step in advance. It denotes the first awakening of what we Social-Democrats call the proletarian class-consciousness, and serves as a pledge and promise of the future. But so far from constituting the essence of modern Socialism, “as taught by Marx,” we see the precise reverse of it in Australia, and miss it even in this country.

That Beer should have propounded such a novel doctrine is no accident. Like all opportunists he divorces the movement from its end, and thinks, after Bernstein, that “the movement is everything and the end is nothing.” He says this, in fact, in so many words, in a subsequent passage, expressing the opinion that the most simple labour organisation fighting for higher wages, shorter hours, and better Labour laws does more for Socialism than all the Utopian books of Wells, all the Swiftian wit of Shaw, all the revolutionary speeches of Hyndman, and all the sentimental harangues of Grayson. It is evident that this extraordinary dictum was suggested to Beer by the well-known saying of Marx that one real advance of the working class was dearer to him than a dozen programmes. Of course, what Marx meant was that no paper programme, however nicely drawn up, was of any value without a corresponding real advance on the part of the proletariat; and so far from disdaining the usefulness of a programme when it really was necessary as a means of discipline and agitation, he himself took part in the drawing up of the Gotha Programme of the German Social-Democrats in 1875, and fought strenuously and long over every syllable of it. Beer has merely paraphrased Marx’s dictum, and landed into most shallow Revisionism. Apart from the comparative merits of the Socialist propaganda work of this or the other of the men Beer mentions, it follows from his dictum that the formation of a Mantle Makers’ Union in the East End is of greater importance for the advance of Socialism than all the work of the S.D.P. or I.L.P.; that Hirsch, the founder of the German Trade Unions which go by his name and that of his colleague Duncker, has been of greater value to Socialism than either Liebknecht, or Bebel, or Kautsky; that the work of Mr. Gompers in America has done more for Socialism than all the propaganda and political agitation of the Socialist or Socialist-Labour Party; that, indeed, the work of Marx and Engels themselves, either before, or during, or after the International, was of less value for Socialism than the activity of the British trade unions, even of “the most simple” of them, in the fifties, sixties, and seventies of the last century. This is on a par with what George Howell and Cremer used to say, and what was said by the Pickards, and the Mawdsleys, and the Burts, and the Wilsons after them. And now we find Beer repeating the same sentiments, because the movement has become to him everything and the end nothing.

Beer will probably protest against this interpretation of his words, just as Bernstein always protests against the interpretations of his. Beer’s whole attitude, however, bears out the construction which I place upon his utterances. Why—and here I come to the second of my questions—why, I ask him, does he not inquire into the nature and object of that political independence of Labour which he alleges Hardie and MacDonald have succeeded in bringing about? Does he not perceive that this political independence is at present merely a formal and technical one, much on the same lines as in Australia, and that neither Keir Hardie nor any other of his colleagues are doing anything to lead the working class from mere independence to Socialist independence, but on the contrary, do everything to retard and to oppose that development? What constitutes “the foremost duty of a Socialist in the class struggle” has been shown to us by Marx and Engels when they formed and led the International. The International, too, was a sort of bloc between Socialists and the Trade Unionists; but was Marx’s policy the same as that of MacDonald and Keir Hardie? Did he not work at every stage of the activity of the International for the Socialist education of the proletariat, for the deepening of its class-consciousness, for the divorce of Labour from the bourgeois parties not merely on technical lines, but also in spirit, and understanding? Beer utters the same distrust in the working class which distinguishes all Revisionists, by saying that the policy of the two I.L.P. leaders “is at present thoroughly in conformity with the mental condition of the British Labour movement.” Apart from the circumstance that this is decidedly not so, as proved by the resolution at Hull, by the election of Grayson at Colne Valley, by the revolts at Dundee, Newcastle, and elsewhere, and by numerous other facts which are patent to everybody who comes into touch with the working class, what are the MacDonalds, and Hardies, and Currans, and the Clyneses doing to improve that “mental condition” on which so much depends? Is it by teaching, as Keir Hardie did at the Newcastle Conference, that political independence means independence not only from, Liberalism and Toryism, hilt also from Socialism? Or is it by working in alliance, with Liberals not only at elections, but also on public platforms on behalf of a soi-disant Temperance Bill, to the exclusion of any action worth-mentioning on a question such as Unemployment? Beer knows the facts as well as I do, but does not want to perceive that the format political independence of Labour, as constituted by the Hardies and MacDonalds, may, perhaps, well serve as a cloak for the personal ambitions of certain leaders, but cannot and is not used as an instrument for the advancement of the “mental condition” of the British working class. Beer takes the movement, and leaves out the end, and feels satisfied that Hardie has done more for British Socialism than any other man alive.

I need scarcely say that I fully appreciate. the great importance of the Labour Party, and profoundly believe in its future. However much the Hardies and MacDonalds may try to retard the growth of Socialist consciousness in the ranks of the organised workers, that growth will proceed, and is proceeding every day, and the moment will ultimately arrive when these leaders will either have to change their policy or be thrown out as Richard Bell was. But while that process is still taking place the work of the leaders of the Labour Party cannot but be regarded by every genuine Marxist as thoroughly retrograde, and by lending the weight of his position to these men and their policy, Beer has in no small measure contributed to increase the mischief. I, for one, greatly regret that he should have done so, though, as I said at the beginning, the thing is neither of to-day, nor of yesterday, but has been going on for years.